Smallpox Shot Prog. Stopped in 7 States
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|Mon, 03-31-2003 - 3:50pm|
Monday, March 31, 2003 Â· Last updated 1:25 p.m. PT
By LAURA MECKLER
WASHINGTON -- The House worked Monday to establish payments for people injured by the smallpox vaccine, as the program was suspended in seven states amid questions about the vaccine's role in three heart attack deaths.
Democrats complained that the GOP-written compensation bill was not generous enough to persuade health care workers and others to sign up for the vaccine, which carries rare but serious risks. Republicans were invoking special rules and needed a two-thirds majority to get their bill approved, and it was unclear if they would succeed.
Everyone involved in the government's smallpox program believes it imperative that Congress establish a fund to pay compensation for those injured or killed by the vaccine. The number of people volunteering for the shot is well below what was expected, partly because of concerns that injured people won't be compensated for medical expenses, lost work time and other expenses.
The program also has suffered from questions about the relationship between the vaccine and heart problems after three people died of heart attacks after being inoculated. While experts suspect the vaccine is probably not to blame, seven states - Arizona, California, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New York and Vermont - have suspended their programs during an investigation.
Those deaths have also sharpened demands that Congress act on compensation. While heart attack has never been associated with the smallpox vaccine, known risks include terrible rashes, blindness and life-threatening infections.
"Medical and public safety professionals know the risks of the disease and the vaccine very well, and few have been willing to take the risk," said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif. "This initiative is failing."
The Republican bill would provide $262,100 if a person should die or be permanently and totally disabled by the vaccine. The amount is based on an existing program to compensate injured police and firefighters.
Those less severely injured by the vaccine could receive up to $50,000 per year in lost wages, up to a maximum of $262,100, if they are out of work for at least five days. They could also get unpaid medical expenses.
The Democrats' version would provide the same $262,100 for those who die or are permanently disabled but would pay $75,000 per year in lost wages, with no lifetime cap.
Additionally, the Democrats would guarantee the money, while the Republican bill would force this program to compete for funding each year.
Republicans argued their version was generous enough.
"If these caps are good enough for our public police officers and our firefighters who die in the line of duty, then I submit that indeed they are good enough for this program as well," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
Democrats said the GOP compensation package would persuade too few workers to be vaccinated.
"It is a token response to a justifiable and serious concern," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Republicans did not allow Democrats to offer their alternative bill Monday. They brought up the GOP legislation using a procedure reserved generally for noncontroversial matters, meaning they needed a two-thirds majority to pass it.
Tauzin urged his colleagues to vote yes on the Republican bill, saying it's urgent that more people quickly get vaccinated against smallpox to help deal with the crisis that would come from a bioterror attack with the virus. He suggested he had already wasted too much time trying to negotiate a bipartisan agreement.
"What happens if tomorrow we get hit, and we haven't passed this bill yet, and we don't have enough volunteers out there ... to vaccinate all of America?" he asked. "Every day I take negotiating with the other side is a day we put our country at risk."
The bill is H.R. 1463